Attention to Emotion Expressions in Autism Spectrum Conditions

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
P. Griffiths, C. Ashwin and J. Black, Dept. of Psychology, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom

Key theories of attentional biases in clinical disorders propose that attention is captured by information relevant to the clinical features of specific disorders. For example, people with spider phobia are often the first people to notice a spider crawling on the wall at a party.People with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have difficulties in social interactions and understanding the mental and emotional states of others. The social-emotional difficulties seen in ASC are also evident in subclinical people with a high degree of autism traits. To date there has been little research investigatingattentional biases towards information related to the social-emotional difficulties of ASC, including research across the wider spectrum of autism.  


The current study investigated attentional biases to emotional expressions in subclinical people with high versus low autism traits and people diagnosed with ASC versus controlsBased on theories of attentional biases in various clinical disorders to information related to their symptoms, we expected people with a high degree of autism traits from the general population and those diagnosed with ASC would show attentional biases towards emotional versus neutral expressions compared to their respective control groups.


We recruited 104 participants from the general population and measured their autism traits using the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ). Based on AQ scores we split the sample into two groups: (1) a high autism traits group based on the top quartile of AQ scores, and (2) a low autism traits group based on the bottom quartile of AQ scores. We further recruited 22 people diagnosed with ASC (17 Males) and 22 controls (17 Males). All participants completed a dot probe task where 2 photographs of faces appeared on the display during each trial. One face had an emotional expression and the other had a neutral expression, and the emotional expressions were either negative or positive in valence. The images disappeared after 500ms and participants then responded to target dots appearing in the location where one of the images appeared. Faster RT’s to the dots represented enhanced attention towards that picture type.      


Results revealed that subclinical people with a degree of autism traits had faster RT’s for dots appearing behind emotional versus neutral expressions, regardless of the valence. Individuals with ASC also showed faster RT’s for dots appearing behind emotional versus neutral expressions compared to the control group; however this effect was specific to emotional expressions with a negative valence.


Results showed that people diagnosed with ASC show attentional biases towards emotional expressions, which is consistent with theories proposing attentional biases related to clinical symptoms. The findings further revealed that these attentonal biases towards emotional expressions extend to the wider spectrum of autism, with the bias also found in subclinical people with a high degree of autism traits. Results suggest that everyday difficulties understanding the mental states of others enhances the salience of social-emotional information for those with a high degree of autism traits, and that this information captures attention.